Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Relationship between Editors and Freelance Writers

The Relationship between Editors and Freelance Writers
Post by Joe Pulizzi

I received an email from a freelance writer last week who wanted a little more detail on how custom publishers/custom publishing editors work with freelance writers (and any specific advice). Although it's a little off our focus here, it's still a great topic. So, I asked my friend and colleague Tom Peric', who has been chief editor of a number of custom publications, to respond. Tom's information is below.

I decided NOT to split this article up, even though it is rather long. As you'll see from Tom's article, freelance writer between traditional assignments are custom assignments are pretty much the same. Personally, the major difference with custom over traditional is that sometimes to need to follow Tom's advice with multiple contacts - the editorial director or chief editor, the account director and the account manager. Each deserves their own treatment. There is no question that there is tons of opportunity for freelancers in custom publishing/media . . . but you definitely have to WANT it.

Thanks Tom for the submission. . . . I hope you all enjoy! - JP

The Writing Life: Editors and Writers

Writing types often ask me about the relationship between editors and freelance writers. Having been on both sides of the fence, I can sympathize with both groups when they gripe about the other party. In particular, freelance writers want to know how to get the attention of editors for an article and to keep that interest for future assignments. Editors don't share the same mold. Editors' approaches to how they deal with freelancers are as varied as the choices of apples at the supermarket. Here are some tips that might help you close the gap with your less successful editors.

Remain The Same. If an editor is accepting your work and seems keen to keep giving you assignments, then you probably have the "right" kind of approach. After all, they keep feeding you work. Here, the cliché is apt: "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." You have apparently developed a system that works for you, so keep doing what you have been doing with this batch.

Background and Relationships. Cracking into the pack of writers used by a reliable editor can be very difficult even when you've shown, via clips or references, that you're a pro. Editors don't like taking chances, probably because they have been disappointed in the past. Hence a reluctance. Yes, ironically, they must always be on the lookout for new talent. Yes, your clips are good, but how do they know that a superb editor didn't slave over your effort to make it good? Suggest to the editor that you might want to take an article, not for the next issue but several issues down the road. This way, you're offering the editor a way to deal with your work (kill the story) if he or she doesn't feel your work doesn't pass the test.

Know The Game. There's nothing more compelling to an editor than when you clearly demonstrate you are familiar with the publication. Unfortunately, this is a time-consuming process, and it's why most PR people fail miserably when they pitch editors. I would hope that you check out the edit calendar BEFORE you pitch the editor. I am stunned at the number of PR people and writers who never bother to look at this. Knowing what an editor is looking for and when he or she needs it is winning half of the assignment game.

What's The Value? Unfortunately, the law of supply and demand dictates the market for freelancers. There are tons of freelancers out there. (I didn't say they were good, just that they're out there.) Everyone wants to write and thinks they can write. So, how valuable are freelancers? Valuable if they deliver. That means they meet deadlines, the copy is tight and bright, they follow the assignment sheet, they keep you abreast of developments, especially problems, and they contact you early - not the day before - when a sticky point develops. One of my freelancers should probably get more money from me. I don't want to lose him, but there's something called a budget. So I pay him within one week (or less) when he turns in the assignment. And I have only sent one assignment back for a minor touch-up in about five years. Any follow-up, I do. What I'm doing is keeping his workload to a minimum and paying faster than anyone in the freelance universe. He loves working with me, and I enjoy working with him. I'm also appalled that the freelance market doesn't pay any better today (per word) than it did 25 years ago. Supply and demand. There will always be more supply than demand - and the wages reflect that reality.

Problem Editors. What should you do with problem editors who don't you use you or, if they do, make it hard getting new assignments? Use the direct, polite approach. Ask them what is the best way to get more assignments. Try this: "Janice, I enjoyed the article I did for you and would like to a few more on a regular basis. Is there anything I can do that would increase this likelihood? Do I need to pitch you differently or approach my stories from a special perspective?" Again, I'm always amazed when people don't ask the person to whom they're selling (and you ARE selling them your writing and reporting skills) how to do it. I would be sure to ask the editor how they want to be pitched and even WHEN they want pitches. While I own my own PR firm in Cherry Hill, N.J., I also serve as the editor of two national trade publications. Sometimes I have people genuflecting to me so that I accept their article or expert as a source. Other times, I'm on bended knee to an editor saying, "please please," accept my client's article or idea. It's a very unusual situation but one that gives me an inside view of BOTH worlds that very few people have. When pitching me, I say the same thing over and over again: Write a working headline and two to three short graphs on the ideas. You MUST answer the two most basic questions on EVERY pitch. Why should I (and the reader) care? Why should I care now? If you can't answer that, you're going to fall short. If you ask each editor how they want pitches and you do it precisely as they requested, you will increase your acceptance rate. When the handful of people who really follow my guidelines send me a pitch, it's amazing how many get an assignment. ASK!

Make It Personal. Whenever possible, try to meet the editor for lunch and a face-to-face. I understand you can't fly across the country for a $500 assignment. But if the editor is within striking distance, up to three hours, I say go for it. How do you decide? Simple. How important is the editor and publication to you? If it's only $1,000 per year, it might not be worth it. But if it's worth $5,000 and you think it's possible to boost that figure to $15,000, make that luncheon appointment today. Meet with EVERY editor at least once a year, and twice is better. In this Internet age, becoming a real person as opposed to a disembodied spirit via e-mail can make all the difference in the world. When you see a particularly relevant idea for an editor, even if it is not something you want to write about, pass it on to the editor with a brief note. Stay in front of the editor in a low-key, but regular way.

Beyond E-Mail. E-mail is great. But most of us forget about e-mails almost immediately, NO MATTER how valuable. Unless we tag it or pull it into an appropriate folder, WE FORGET ABOUT IT. Follow up EVERY e-mail intro to an editor with a hard copy by snail mail. The snail mail will presumably include your background, plus an article or two. Be sure to use a good color printer for what you send. Mention in the e-mail that you'll send hard copy. Why? Try this: "Janice, because e-mail getting through is always suspect, I'm also sending along a copy of this e-mail in a snail mail packet." Now it might sit on the desk for months, but the editor will almost surely have to "touch" it again. And they just might say, "Oh, yeah, I meant to . . ." Old e-mails? Don't we almost always forget about them? Snail mail is still real mail.

What Am I Doing Wrong? What are you doing wrong with the editors who don't use or call upon you with regularity? Again, just ask. The problem is most editors will never level with you. Whether it's political correctness, politeness or avoiding a decidedly uncomfortable conversation, I've never known an editor to say, "I just don't like your writing style." However, I once had an editor compare me to another top gun freelancer and, frankly, he favored the other guy. He was also honest about why. That conversation had a profound effect on me. I had another editor who had issues about one aspect of how I handled the language. The results of the conversation also had a dramatic effect on how I wrote subsequently. In short, when you obtain the information that warrants change, do so. But there will always be some things (editors) that you can't control, change or receive information from that permits you to take a different direction. "Forget about it," as Al Pacino said. You'll sleep better at night. Just go on to the next editor.

The Best Time. Keep abreast of changes in the marketplace. There is NEVER a better time to approach an editor than when he or she starts on the job. They often start with a partially clean slate. What better time than now to approach them before they create their own stable of writers and become reluctant to add more? One source I use, among many, is Partyline. It is a weekly report on staff and editorial changes at many media outlets. Tell Betty I sent you. A bit expensive for some freelancers (about $167 for an online version) but worth it. Visit

Tom Peric' is a leading speaker on getting publicity and president of Galileo Communications Inc. He is the author of Wacky Days: How to Get Millions of $$$ in Free Publicity.

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